Although democracy today is globally recognized as the dominant political form, it is under attack both by a homogenizing globalization that would put the logic of the market over civic participation in the polity, or would dissolve the polity in favor of identification and immersion in local communities. Moreover, the very concept of democracy is highly contested, with a by now bewildering myriad of competing conceptions, often dramatically at odds with each other.
In his book _What is Democracy?_, French sociologist Alain Touraine enters the fray, attempting to defend democracy against its enemies and to advance his own conception. For Touraine, democracy is connected to modernity where a rational subject emerges to formulate universal principles, laws, and rights which recognize and preserve the liberty and equality of individual subjects. Modernity for Touraine is a secular condition, so that free subjects are forced to discover and create their own laws, institutions, and social forms which will preserve their freedom and enhance their well-being. Following the outlines of classical social theory, Touraine sees modernity as involving both growing rationalization and differentiation. For the problematic of democracy, these developments point to a growing rationalization of the state and the political sphere, and thus to technocratic politics, as well as to growing cultural diversity, in which conflicting groups want to express their cultural aspirations and protect their interests in the political sphere.
In Touraine's view, democracy today must thus reconcile these conflicting tendencies, it must create spaces that open the way for public participation and action while preserving individual difference and diversity. Yet Touraine is a fierce critic of participatory democracy and polemicizes against a multiculturalism that involves the logic of pursuing diversity and difference without seeking a common ground of higher principles and values, or a shared public sphere and polis. He mistrusts procedural democracy that would reduce democracy to formal procedures or institutions that would guarantee or maximize certain results, as well as communitarianism that would submerge individual freedom and diversity into a homogenized community.
The polemical thrust of the book is aimed against totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and in the light of experiences with oppressive forms of government, Touraine argues that individual rights, liberties, pluralism, and the basic principles of liberalism must be part of a democratic society. "As I see it," he writes, "democracy's raison d'etre is to supply the indispensable institutional preconditions that allow the personal subject to act.... only the actor--individual or collective--can reconcile the universal with the particular and instrumentality with conviction" (122). Thus, while classical liberalism privileges the rationality of a constitutional order based on rights and principles of justice, Touraine privileges his conception of the social actor, thus harkening back to the central concept of his earlier sociological work.
Touraine links his conception of democracy to the production of subjects who resist domination, practice self-esteem, and recognize the subjectivity of others (125). For Touraine, democracy's dual challenge is to protect individual liberty and rights and cultural diversity. It is based on democratic culture and the recognition of the other as a subject and actor. This requires mutual understanding and communication: "Everything that establishes a link between difference and communication--all forms of discussion, understanding, and respect for the other--contribute to the building of a democratic culture" (196). Democracy thus occurs in the social relations between subjects who confront other subjects and forms of power, who struggle against domination, and for liberty, equality, and tolerance. Such an intersubjective conception of democracy, Touraine, believes, constitutes a properly sociological conception, opposed to political conceptions rooted in an abstract rationalism and universalism, and actively militates to promote representation of majority interests, citizenship, and basic rights that restrict power.
In sum, Touraine wants to link democracy with the production of social actors, of subjects, who connect their own development and well-being with the development and democratization of society. Touraine does not, however, adequately discuss how the media and media culture help produce subjects, or subject positions, in the contemporary world and besides a couple of brief and superficial pages on television (133-134) does not discuss how the media are transforming politics and undermining democracy, thus ignoring a vast literature on this topic. Moreover, there is not a word about the impact of new technologies on politics and subjectivity, despite the explosion of literature on this topic. Furthermore, there are only a few superficial pages on education and democracy (143-147). Consequently, there is little on how the social actors who are to produce democracy are to be formed and what specific forms democracy will take in the current era. Therefore, despite some useful conceptual analysis and spirited polemics against competing positions, Touraine's ruminations on democracy strike one as somewhat abstract and out of date, forcing us to retheorize once again the form and substance of democracy in an era of technological revolution and the global restructuring of capitalism.